This is the first chapter of a new, full-length online serialised novel. Chapter Two is now here. Every week, a new chapter will be posted on the site. It’s a detective story set against the backdrop of a fractured British society. In 2023, a viral epidemic hit the world. In Britain, the wealthy blamed the fast spread of the virus on the rest of the population, citing their inability to afford adequate healthcare. This prompted the country’s richest inhabitants to erect a literal ring of steel, barricading London off from the rest of the populace, forcing out those who couldn’t afford the inflated council tax.
An almighty crack of thunder disturbed me from my daze. This reintroduction to reality was particularly dismaying as my gaze returned to the large pile of case files on my desk. Graffiti. Vandalism. Grand theft auto. Insignificant crimes, in the grand scheme of things, considering the violence and murder that surrounded my existence. They all, however, required reams of paperwork. Sometimes a murder was a lot easier to file away than a broken lamp-post. Ridiculous.
I selected a case file at random, and opened it on my desk screen. 23rd September 2089. Graffiti. A new tag had been appearing. It had started appearing a few months previously, and now it was all over the port-side town. A simple design, it featured a perfectly round bubble with a pin inserted, a couple of wavy lines signifying, we guessed, the air rushing out. It was being burnt into civil property with some sort of laser tool, though we weren’t entirely sure what. The designs were so uniform, it was almost as if a template was being used. We had no leads. It was something we’d never seen before, though a few phone calls to friends in other sectors suggested we weren’t the first to experience it. I was mulling over whether to hit the mean streets of Portsmouth to question the local youth gangs when my mobile started to ring.
“Yeah, this is Taylor?” I responded.
“This is PC Edwards. I’m on Stratton Street, and we’ve got a body,” came the reply. It was a local bobby, one I didn’t recognise.
“Stratton Street?” I asked. As far as I knew, Stratton was all but deserted, a casualty of a gang war that had burnt through the west side of Portsmouth, mainly along the shore line. It had been vacant for months now, aside from a few tramps. They were the worst bodies, no way to identify them.
“Yeah, 32 Stratton. Seems to have been here a few weeks, coroner says. Better get down here soon, roof’s leaking,” he told me.
Great, exactly what I didn’t want. Wet, unidentifiable body on the worst side of one of England’s most violent town. I looked at my desk screen. Well, at least I could put off the graffiti case. I took my gun from my desk drawer, picked up my coat and made my way out.
When I got to Stratton twenty minutes later, the downpour was even harder, if possible. Rain was bad, but it did tend to keep the majority of the crazies out of the way. Even violent offenders hate getting wet. I ran through the shower with my coat pulled up over my head, and entered the house. It was a mid-terrace, in a state of disrepair, much like the rest of the street. It wasn’t too bad inside. Fully furnished. It was dusty, but everything was in its place. I looked around for PC Edwards. He should have been on the front door, keeping the scene secure. I listened, and heard voices upstairs. I tensed for a moment, then heard laughter. I shook my head. No-one in this town seemed to take their job seriously. I made my way up.
Edwards was at least five years younger than me, barely twenty from what i could make out. He was chatting to the coroner, a bull of a man in his early forties. I knew him well, Thomas Cahill. Good at his job, but liked to get things wrapped up quickly. Stepping into the room, I found myself splashing across a sodden carpet. I looked up at the ceiling, and saw the yellowing patch that had given way to the swiftly trickling water.
“Hey, Inspector Taylor?” Edwards asked. His look of mild surprise did not go unnoticed, but I was used to it. I was young for a detective, having just been at that rank for a little over a year. In some of the more civilised towns, a man of my age in my position was unheard of nowadays. In Portsmouth, though, it wasn’t so unusual. It was a dangerous town, in dangerous times, and as such, life expectancy was well below the national average.
“What can you tell me about this guy?” I addressed them both.
“Nothing,” Edwards said. “No ID, empty pockets. No labels in the clothing, no distinguishing marks. We ran the address, and it’s listed as an empty dwelling.” I sniffed. There were many ’empty dwellings’ that served as bases for gangs, shelters for homeless, party shacks for the local drugs crowd. In a town that had dwindled down to under 100,000 during the epidemic, only around 40,000 citizens were officially accounted for. Why pay council tax when the council were trying to arrest you?
“He’s dead,” Cahill stated bluntly. “Can we go now?” I should have been appalled, but instead needed to stifle a chuckle. Cahill came across as blunt, but he was not without humour. You just needed to get to know him.
“How did he die?” I asked. Both men shook their heads.
“It’s not immediately obvious,” Cahill replied. “No marks that I can see. Maybe he died of a broken heart?” he offered dryly.
“Give me a minute with the scene, will you?” I asked him, but he was already nodding on his way out of the room, a rueful smile on his lips. Edwards was a bit slower on the uptake, but skipped out behind Cahill after a moment. It wouldn’t take me long.
So, layer of dust everywhere. Body a couple of weeks old from what Edwards had told me on the call. I slipped some gloves on, gave the body a cursory check. As Edwards had so rightly noted, the guy had nothing on him. Dark hair, early forties by the looks of it, though hard to tell, he was starting to fester. I looked closer at the body. Interesting. Nails manicured, hair trimmed. Clean shaven. No scars, no visible signs of trauma. He didn’t belong on this side of town, that was certain. He’d been disposed of here. If he didn’t live locally, and it was obvious he didn’t, then there was very little I could glean from the location. The forensics team might make it there eventually, and check it out, but I wasn’t hopeful. We’d need a post-mortem to determine cause of death. Maybe his finger prints would come up if we were lucky. Other than that, not much to go on. I took a shot on my phone, so I could get a head-start on checking recent missing persons in the area. It was likely, of course, that he’d been shipped in from out-of-town. As if we didn’t have enough corpses of our own. I went out into the hallway, where Cahill and Edwards were continuing their apparently highly amusing conversation from earlier.
“He’s all yours then, Cahill,” I said. “And Edwards, is it?” I said to the Police Constable. He nodded an affirmation. “I don’t care if it’s the middle of an earthquake, you keep your crime scenes secure. Do you understand?” I asked him firmly. He looked startled, and glanced at Cahill, who shrugged and turned away.
“Er.. Yes, sir. It won’t happen again.” I made my way down the stairs, safe in the knowledge that it almost definitely would. If he lived long enough.
When I got back to the station, I connected my phone to the system. I set it to search missing persons in the sector for a facial match. It was unlikely, but at least I’d be doing something on the case whilst I waited for a pathology report. I was about to get back on to my graffiti case once again, when I spotted DI Richards. I looked at the clock. Time really flew when you were buried in case-work. My shift was almost over.
“Hey, Richards,” I called. He turned, and walked over.
“Taylor. How’s your day been?” he asked cheerfully. It never ceased to amaze me how he could always manage a smile in the midst of all the misery that surrounded us.
“Busy. Busy, yet unproductive,” I replied. He nodded. “I got a couple of new cases, but nothing really for you to do. Picked up a body on Stratton Street, of all places, but can’t do anything until we get pathology, which won’t be until tomorrow. More hot graffiti, but no leads. I’ll ask around tomorrow, I know you’ve got plenty on yourself.”
“Thanks,” he replied. “I’m gonna be spending most of the day running around chasing stolen property. I think we know who we’re looking for now at least, but the hard part is next.”
“Finding them,” I supplied. There was no shortage of repeat offenders in Portsmouth, but they were pretty slippery. On the few occasions we could get enough evidence together to make an air tight case, it was a struggle finding the accused. More often than not they ran like jackrabbits, and we had more kills than arrests for the third year in three. It was starting to become a war zone. It wasn’t like that everywhere. I just happened to work in one of the most crime-ridden sectors in the country. Strangely, I was able to find some solace in that knowledge. If I was surviving here, it meant that around the country others were far better off, thriving in some cases. “Anything I can help you with before I go?” I asked him. He shook his head.
“No, you get some sleep. You’ve got a cold body waiting for you tomorrow,” he reminded me. “Hopefully I’ll see you when you clock off, not when you clock in. And if you don’t see me again, avenge me, won’t you?” he said, only half jokingly. If it could be said that anyone laughed in the face of death, it was Alfie Richards. I didn’t find the prospect quite so easy to swallow, but I wouldn’t deny him his coping mechanism.
“I’ll make them pay, I promise,” I offered. He slapped me on the back, and wandered around to his desk. I got my things together, and made my way back out into the rain.
When I got back to my place, the rain had eased off. I lived in the relatively secure northern-most area of Portsmouth. It was still a high crime area, but less violent. I’d been burgled twice, though luckily for them, I’d been at work both times, and luckily for me, I didn’t have much worth stealing. Particularly the second time. I was tired to my very core. Nothing particularly hectic had happened recently. I hadn’t had to shoot my gun for two months. But the ever-increasing workload, and the futility of the task at hand, policing a town gone to Hell, was beginning to weigh me down. In the nine years I’d worked on the force, things had gone from hopeful to hopeless, and I was beginning to question whether it was worth continuing. I could see a point to it all when there’d been the potential to bring the crime rate down, but now we were fighting to slow its rise, it was harder to stay motivated. People were dying, and nothing I could do would stop it. We’d been given more power, and license to be tougher, but we were still behind the curve.
I fried some pork, and boiled some potatoes. I hadn’t been shopping for several days, and when I had gone, there’d been shortages again. I’d been eating the same thing all week, though this night was the first time it had bothered me. I was frustrated that I didn’t have anything nice to eat, and annoyed with myself when I remembered that I’d run out of apple sauce with which to at least give the meal some hope. I considered running out and getting something wet to make the meal more palatable, but I couldn’t face the streets at night. Not when I didn’t have to.
I choked down the dry pork and potatoes with lots of water. I went through my bedtime routine. Didn’t even bother to plug the computer in, let alone switch it on. I was having a down day, and I just wanted it to end. An early night meant the working day arriving that bit faster, but I just didn’t have the energy for recreation. Besides, there was a chance of pleasant dreams, a chance to believe, even for a moment, that things weren’t so bad after all. I still managed the odd nice dream now and then, in amongst the nightmares.